Hacking your Way Out from Under Writer’s Block

It’s inevitable. Writer’s block will happen at some point and it sucks. It’s frustrating, and the more stressed you get about it, the less able you are to get un-blocked. It’s kind of like … insomnia. The more you freak out about not sleeping, the longer it takes to get to sleep, right? You might as well give up because it just isn’t going to happen. But, just when you stop worrying about not sleeping, that’s when you fall asleep. The same thing is true with writer’s block.

Yet, we tend to panic. And stress. And obsess. And all of this just makes the problem worse.

So the key, then, is to have a plan of attack:

•    Talk to a monkey — Or some other animal, alive or stuffed, so you can work out all that crap you’ve got stuck inside your head.
•    Change your voice — Maybe the problem is the voice you’re writing in, so change it. The truly great thing about being a writer, like being an actor, is that you can be anyone on the page, so change who you are. Switch your personality. Try seeing the topic from someone else’s perspective.
•    Quit beating yourself up — OMG, you can’t create when you feel whipped. Stop visualizing catastrophes. Eliminate the pressure. Call in support.
•    Write crap — Just accept that your first draft will be crap and get over it, then move on to write something totally brilliant. You’re a professional; you get paid to write. Eventually you will get past this.
•   Write the middle first —This might be the best advice I ever received: Stop whining over a perfect lead, and write the next part, or the part after that. Write your favorite part. Write the cover letter or the email you’ll send when it’s done. Just write something. It doesn’t have to be in chronological order.
•    Write five words — Literally. Put five random words on a piece of paper. Then five more words. Try writing a sentence out of them. Could be about anything. A block ends when you start writing words on a page.

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Sloppy Seconds

How’s that for a powerful headline? Got your attention, right?

But I’m talking about the editorial second pass. As a writer, you may not be aware of this; if you’ve done any type of editing at all, you better know what I’m talking about.

The second pass is an editor’s saving grace; this is where you, we, catch everything, and I mean everything that we missed during the first pass.

During the first pass, editors are hyper-focused on scrubbing copy to improve readability, correct misspelled words, hunt down grammar problems, find pesky punctuation errors, and oh, fix that little thing called voice, tone, and style. So, yeah, they have a lot on their plates. Thinking about the copy and seeing it the way the reader should isn’t really at the top of their list.

Enter the second pass, or as I like to call it, the saving grace. This is the second take, where editors can actually read the copy like a reader would at a reader’s pace instead of at an editor’s pace. This is where editors look for typos, clumsy copy, awkward passages, and any other snafus that were missed in the first pass.

The second pass is not to be taken lightly; editors who skip the saving grace are either 1) above reproach, perfect beyond compare, 2) have minions who do their seconds for them, or 3) think themselves too good to have to do a second pass and end up with copy riddled with errors.

Jargon: Tired, Overused, and Abused

I hate jargon. I really, truly despise it. And when it shows up in my writing, I just want to scream. It’s really easy to slip into using jargon when you’re searching for something to say. Believe me, we’re all guilty of it. But, it’s never a substitute for content. The best defense: edit yourself and revise your writing so that you eliminate jargon before you publish anything. Otherwise you will suffer the consequence of embarrassment, and that can last forever.

Check out this list of tired, overused, and abused clichés and avoid using every single one of them. Believe me, you’ll thank me for it later.

Core of my being — If you run across this in written form, just click the back button and close the book on that one. If you actually hear the phrase spoken aloud, exit the coffee shop you’re in immediately and make sure the woman wearing the Sylvia Plath t-shirt isn’t following you.

Think outside the box — If you can’t think of another phrase to use, you should be stuffed inside a box.

Quantum leap — Unless you’re a physicist, you really have no business using this word at all. Avoid it, period.

Paradigm shift — Finding a new way to shaft the consumer is not a paradigm shift. That’s business as usual. If and when you actually encounter a paradigm shift, then, by all means, feel free to use the term.

Granular — If someone says a report needs to be more granular, don’t hesitate, just kick them in the, well, you can imagine where you should kick them. Granular is a word used by corporate weenies because they think it makes them sound more … intelligent.

Confidence is high — If you’ve ever used that in a sentence, you were the one who was probably high.

Manage expectations — What this really means is: “We don’t know if this will work, so let’s make sure that if we fail, we can say that we expected this might fail.” What? Just say what you mean. Let people manage their own expectations.

Credibility gap — Political speak for calling any one group a bunch of bloody stinking liars. Seriously? They’re politicians. They lie for a living. Oxymoron.

Critical mass — Again, unless you’re a physicist, stay away from their lingo.

Irregardless — WTF? This isn’t a word. Never was. Never will be. I still don’t know why people try to use that non-word in a sentence. Just don’t use it.

Headlines that Scream to be Noticed

Headline: copy designed to catch the reader’s eye and stop him in his tracks

Stop. Before reading another word of this, pick up a magazine and flip through it. What’s the first ad that caught your eye? What’s the headline? How long did it take to get to there? And that’s the problem.

Many times writers are so fixated on getting the message in the body of the copy dead-on accurate that they forget all about the headline. But really, if the headline doesn’t have that drop-dead stop-them-in-their-tracks wow factor, you’ve already lost your audience.

Consumers scan headlines before they decide to read an ad. If your headline isn’t powerful, your copy, no mater how great, might as well say “blah, blah, blah” because no one is going to read it. An effective headline doesn’t just pique your reader’s curiosity, it hooks them, compelling them to read more.

So what’s a copywriter to do? Here are three techniques that make your headlines powerful:

Be Direct with an Offer or Guarantee Headlines don’t have to be complicated. If you have a special offer that will lure customers in, then say so. For example:

Take a 30-Day Test Drive and Decide for Yourself. 
Print ad for: Escort Radar

Our Best Rates Guaranteed. 
Print ad for: Hilton Hotels

Make a Statement Always popular, typically creative and catchy, sometimes just a couple of short words or a sentence or two. Magazines are loaded with these headlines, but you have to know your market, your products and what exactly it is you’re trying to sell to determine if using a statement as your headline is right for your ad. As in:

Be One in a Million, Not One of a Million 
Print ad for: Pantene Pro-V

Pricey Ink Stinks 
Print ad for: Kodak

Stop. Rinse. Play. 
Print ad for: Mr. Clean AutoDry Carwash

The Gorilla Has Evolved. Now It Gets Stronger, Faster. Print ad for: Gorilla Glue

Use News in Your Headline If your introducing a new product or an improvement to an existing one, you can use that news in your headline. Introducing, Finally, Announcing, Now and New are popular choice words you’ll find in these types of headlines. Samples include:

Introducing Freschetta Pizzamore. For Take-Out Taste at Your Place. 
Print ad for: Freschetta Pizzamore

We’ve Always Helped You Rock. Now We Help You Roll. 
Print ad for: XM NavTraffic

New Southwestern Style Veggie Cakes 
Print ad for: MorningStar Farms

Now go out and rock some headlines. Happy writing.

Outgrowing Arcane Rules of Usage: Since vs. Because

I recently read an article giving a number of reasons why “since” should not be used to mean “because.” While the writer is theoretically correct, I found the premise to be primarily flawed in that, hey who doesn’t do this in this day and age and what reader with half a brain doesn’t understand the meaning of what is being said?

I know, technically this usage is slovenly, sloppy, careless, and yes, unthinking. It may even cause confusion to some … purists. Yet, how do you un-ring a bell? It may be too late in the evolution of the English language to force writers to use “because” to mean “because” when far too many of us have used “since” to use the very same thing.

Get over it already. Readers are smart enough, savvy enough, to know what you mean. Treat them like that. Forcing arcane usage and awkward sentence structures for the sake of following outdated rules only results in one thing: reader confusion.

If readers can’t navigate the sentence because they can’t get past the awkward structure, then the message is not only lost, your readers won’t continue reading the rest of the piece, right? And since readers easily understand “since” to mean “because,” then what’s the harm in using it? See, I just did it, and nothing horrible happened. So don’t get caught up in all the minutia.

There’s Nothing Like a 500-Point Type Typo

Some things never get old.

This an excellent example of why you should always proof your work. Granted, the word is technically correct, so I can understand how this mistake might have been made. Read the next paragraph to discover just where this little typo is.

The shuttle’s name is not “Endeavor,” but “Endeavour;” its British spelling reflects the fact that the ship is named after the HM Bark Endeavour, a 10-gun Royal Navy bark commanded by Lieutenant James Cook on his first voyage of discovery to Australia and New Zealand in 1769-1771.

So this is just your basic typo … printed in about 500-point type. Embarrassing, right?

Endeavor vs. Endeavour

Endeavor vs. Endeavour

I think USA Today may have said it best with their headline: “Houston, We Have a Typo.”